Sultan Al Qassemi on Egypt
We talk to the notorious Tweeter, analyst and speaker about the state of the Arab Spring, the importance of social media, who he thinks would make the best Egyptian president and when he started growing that ponytail of his...
Some say his IQ is equaled only by the amount of followers he has on Twitter. Some say he owns half of Sharjah and one of the greatest collections of Middle Eastern fine art in the world. Others say he receives his divine intellect through his ponytail. All we know is, his name is Sultan Al Qassemi and he does really good tweets.
The 36-year old Emirati scholar and successful businessman is a columnist for some of the world's leading publications and according to TIME magazine is "shaping the conversation" on events unfolding in the Middle East.
But unlike the droves of twitterati born from the Arab spring he manages to exist beyond their world of politicking and pettiness and has garnered popularity in real life.
In this CairoScene pseudo-exclusive we chat to the Kanye of political commentators about the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood and, seriously - what makes a good tweet?
You've become the voice of the Arab Spring. How do you feel about all of this?
Because so many people did so much more.
Do you think you contributed anything?
In what ways?
Some translation services, and for some people my commentary was fairly accurate, fairly up to date and concise which is why I think Time and New York Times used some of the tweets in their articles. I also corrected myself with any mistakes so they felt that there was some degree of reliability, as well.
Would you say the lack of reliability of the media in the Middle East sets you apart?
No, there are so many better people and journalists working who do this as a fulltime job. I was just doing it out of passion for a few months and that was it, then I went back to my real life. There are people who do this all the time.
Was there a moment when you realised when you could turn this passion into a career?
Well I think it happened on its own, so whenever I get invited to an event to speak - I was flown into some country recently, first class – I never say no. I mean, first class flights and a nice hotel and you get to speak and interact with people, it's not a career but it's a good sideshow.
Why do you think you've gained this status aside from being in the right place at the right time?
I think, first of all, you have someone coming from the Gulf tweeting in English, that was very rare, with the vast majority of people from the Gulf tweeting in Arabic. So that was an interesting angle for them, having someone who clearly looks like they’re from the Gulf, tweeting in English, fairly political. It was a novelty, at least in 2011-12. I think the novelty value has gone away.
Your work and education is firmly rooted in business. When did you realise that politics and current affairs were something that you could contribute to and be interested in?
I was always reading about politics. Although I studied business – I was kind of pushed into it but I'm happy I did study it – I used to go to talks and events, read books and then I started writing about political issues. Which again was another unusual novelty for people, being someone from the Gulf. It's more common now.
Overall, would you say the Arab Spring is a success?
I think it's too early to judge, you're looking at a generational shift. Perhaps in 20 years, you'll be able to judge and say it was a success or a disaster. At times it will seem like nothing has moved. Right now, it's a mixed bag but I think, overall, the region needed a shake up. A lot of people were hurt, injured and killed but it was something that was expected, I think. If you consider the shifts that took place in Eastern Europe in the late 80s and early 90s and these countries were only admitted into the European Union 15 years later. So it's a generational issue.
What's the longest you've gone without looking at your phone?
When I was awake or asleep?
Awake? I don’t know... I was going to say when I speak at events but I have my phone on me. Maybe an hour.
Now in Egypt we're seeing a return of how things were and there’s a feeling of nothing that happened over the last three years amounted to anything. Do you think people will become apathetic again towards politics?
That's a very good question. People felt that information was controlled by governments and by state media so whenever there were independent voices they would highlight it and people would be interested in particular analyst at a particular time. Maybe the difference with me is that I didn't write internal things related to Egypt, I always wrote about the Gulf in relation to Egypt because I know the Gulf region very well. I could never dream of attempting to analyse internal Egypt. I think that right now people are trying to go back to the real world. But there will always be interest, you cannot expect a country as important and significant as Egypt to lose interest. You'd see other countries where there was a loss of interest, if you consider Libya, for example, after the uprising and even in Syria. But something as important as Egypt will always have people who will write whether it's for free or for a fee.
Are you jealous that the Gulf doesn't have the same shakeup?
I'm glad we haven't had the same shakeup! Are you kidding me? I think things are changing in the Gulf but at a more gradual rate, you do have some reforms that took place in Kuwait and Bahrain and in Oman especially but not with the degree you saw in the Arab Republics.
Have you ever been censored?
Oh definitely! In almost every publication that I wrote for, the end article would be edited but mostly to suit the newspaper's style of writing. However, a couple of times I wrote an article and I did not recognise it when it was published. You learn, and you have a list of people to never work with.
Was that from a Middle Eastern publication?
No, it was an international publication.
Have you ever taken your name off something that was written?
No but I did take my name off an article that was going to be published because I felt like the content that I contributed was diminished and I did not feel like it was representing me. It was a joint article and by the time it was ready, my sentences were almost edited out and I decided to let go of it all together.
In recent weeks, censorship has been making a major comeback in Egypt. What’s your take on that?
You still have a high degree of freedom of expression here in Egypt. Maybe not for certain people, but in general, compared to other countries. It looks like Egypt is behind the times, jailing people who look like spies or alleged spies and having the case go on for weeks and months doesn't reflect Egypt well at all.
We just passed a new constitution. Do you think the people in charge will actually enforce it?
I think only time will tell; you will know within a few months whether you're going to have a new parliament, which political party will dominate the parliament, who will be elected president . But I think that there will be elements of the constitution that will be open to modification. Some articles that will probably be modified and a political party that will demand some changes and I think that, for the sake of the country, these demands should be at least considered seriously.
So, Sisi - the next president or lifetime general?
I don't think that there's such a thing as lifetime anything anymore. But you are looking at Sisi playing a very important role. My personal opinion? Perhaps being president is not an ideal post for him to take up; it's really a huge task that the army should stay well away from. There are a lot of challenges and, ultimately, the president will be seen as the head of state and the person in charge will be blamed for all the inadequacies that will be highlighted. You have unemployment and infrastructure challenges... Even today you had the collapse of that bridge: so who's in charge ultimately? Is it the mayor? Is it the Minister of Transport? It has to stop somewhere and it usually stops at the president so it would be interesting to see what his decision is.
Is there someone in the current political sphere that you think is suitable to be president in Egypt?
I think that I have my own favourite candidate for all the wrong reasons but I would probably lose half my friends if I mention this person's name. He's old.
Not Shafik. He's really old, like 70/80 years old.
So we're talking Moussa?
Yeah. I think he would be good, for all the wrong reasons. Firstly, because he's old, he wouldn't run again. And because he's a statesman, he would be more open to criticism, and he already has good relations with the international community. So there are a number of reasons that appoint him but I don't think that he'd be willing to alienate the military now... he's so popular with them, he oversaw the constitution. He's almost this father figure now to some Egyptians. A lot of people now would be doing some noise with their nose if they hear that I said he's a father figure!
Yesterday, something quite weird happened to us. We were in Zamalek and picked up some beers. Back in Morsi’s time, we were like fuck it! Let’s drink in the street! We felt rebellious and there was a surge of freedom. This time we took our beers home quietly. When the army are there on every corner, we’re scared to do what we want. Who should we be fearful of the most?
Is this going into the interview? This beer story?! For me, I think the Muslim Brotherhood should be feared the most. Because I think the Brotherhood were changing the identity of Egypt and it was much more covert. What they were doing was to have long term effects on the identity of Egyptians; with what is permitted in theatre, what is permitted in art, what is permitted in culture, what kind of music is played. What is acceptable of an Egyptian would have changed drastically and it would have taken you a couple of generations to change it back if the Brotherhood were still in charge.
Many Egyptians went out on June 30th under the impression that the country was close to a complete civil breakdown, justifying the army's interference. Do you think this was the reality of Egypt at that time?
I was in Egypt 10 times in 2012, all I do is read about Egypt, several times a day, both Arabic articles and English articles and I saw that there was a huge polarisation in the country. A lot of people felt that they were under threat. I had a lot of people who said if the Brotherhood came and enforced hijab or Islamic law, their families would physically defend their freedom, so this polarisation would have exploded one way or another. I don't think the Brotherhood understood how hated they were - they were criminally naive and stupid and they made all these promises and broke them; they thought they could get away with it but the Egyptians didn't let them get away with it. Unfortunately some of what happened afterwards was regrettable but it could have been worse if it had been left to fester for another year or two.
Do you think the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is going to lead international extremist groups to come to Egypt to fight?
I think a lot of extremists will identify with the Muslim Brotherhood; a lot of people who would see similarities in their cause would take up arms maybe and we've seen this happen in the last few months in Egypt but fortunately it hasn't happened to the degree that people were expecting . But Egypt has porous borders with Sudan, with Libya, Gaza and Israel. so you have a lot of people who can come into the country. Plus you have all these sea borders like the Red Sea or on the Mediterranean so unless the risk is contained it could get worse.
There are theories that imprisonment radicalises people further. So which is the bigger threat, outside terrorists coming in or breeding inside terrorists in prison cells?
I think ultimately, if their end goals meet, then the double threat would be the worst case scenario but I don’t think it willget to that point. I think Egyptians are aware of how bad it could get and I think this is a situation that will not last beyond 2014. There is talk of negotiations, of letting some people out... I'm not sure how serious that is but ultimately you cannot keep however many thousands imprisoned without a trial and reaching some kind of accommodation with them. I think cooler heads will prevail on both sides. What we are seeing is the risk of radicalised youth who might not agree with their leadership, and the breakdown of the organisation. Is it better to have a breakdown of the organisation of the Brotherhood or is it better to deal with someone who's in charge who could give you their word and this word would be honoured? You know how organised they are and they take orders from the very top so is it better for you to negotiate with one head or is it better for you to eliminate that leadership ladder and negotiate with dozens and dozens of people? That’s the question that needs answering.
Do you really think there is such a thing as cutting ties with the Muslim Brotherhood?
Impossible. We've seen this with the radicalised youths. There a lot of Brotherhood members who left but came back to the organisation in solidarity; they were protesting in Rabaa even though they were not fully accepted into the organisation. This organisation breeds loyalty because you feel that you owe it to your life, it fed your family, subsidised your food and dental care, healthcare, it's paid for your operations... everything.
Social Media and Arab Spring - Discuss.
What’s the meaning of life? Discuss.
Do you think the massive upsurge between 25th January and the 28th of January, 2011, would have happened without social media?
I think what social media did was enable people to share posters, banners and logos, and this is the sticker we're going to use today. It wasn't fundamental.
A lot of academics speak of as social media or the internet in general helping the organisation of politics and grass roots movements...
Because meetings couldn't be held officially, people met online and decided what to do but, ultimately, you had to physically be there. The military would not have been worried if they had a 100,000 people liking a page on Facebook or having a hashtag. But when they saw thousands, or a million people in the streets then they paid attention. So you do need the physical presence of people in the streets.
How about social media versus actual media; what's more reliable these days in the Middle East?
Actual media lost a lot of credibility like Al-Ahram newspaper in 2009 with that famous Hosny Mubarak photo when he was photoshopped into the front Obama. That killed Al-Ahram for several years. The newspaper never recovered.They shot themselves in the foot! There was no need to photoshop Hosny Mubarak in the front, it just looks awkward to have a visiting president lead the host - did he know the way in Whitehouse?! They could've at least made him taller and removed his flab. It was very disrespectful to the Egyptians. And that's where you have social media and all these writers come in.
You get up in the morning, and spend sixhours you say reading on Egypt. What's your first go-to site or person?
I go on Facebook; I follow a lot of journalists. I love the team of Mada Masr for example, not only for their own work but for the articles they post. I like a lot of people who are on Facebook and Twitter like Ahmed Samir and Sameh Samir. I like CairoScene... it’s amazing, especially when I want to know what to do away from politics.
We have a politics section!
Yes, yes, essential reading.
What's the secret behind getting so many followers?
What's a good tweet? What’s the formula?
You know this morning I tweeted a picture of the Nile, and that was good. People identify with the Nile.
Do you have Twitter groupies?
Oh yeah. The number of times I got invited to drinks...The number of times I met people... I had encounters.
What is the best thing you have been gifted from being very large on twitter?
I get flown in first class thousands of miles away and stay in hotels because they think that I know what I'm talking about. Because they see me on Twitter and they're like, book him a first class ticket and bring him to DC, take him to Algeria!
Do you know what you're talking about?
Not really. I kind of bluff 60-70% what I'm saying, and 30% of it is just colour.
Did you start growing your ponytail before or after the revolution?
Was that part of the spirit of the revolution?
This is my attempt at looking like a Leftie.
What do you think the future is for the Left in Egypt?
I think that there is always a need for Leftist movements, they are always very principled and they really stand by labour issues and the work environment and workers rights... it’s important to have a Leftist element, but to have a successful economy you need capitalism.
You said you've been visiting Egypt quite frequently in the last few years, how would you say the mood or character of the average Egyptian has changed under Morsi to this in-between stage?
I was never here under Morsi but there hasn’t seemed to be a real shift. However, I feel that people are more realistic now and they know that this is going to be a long term thing. I spoke to a lot of Egyptians days after the revolution and they felt they could fly to the moon which is a beautiful feeling to have but it isn't realistic. You need to realise that this is a thousand mile journey and that you're just taking the first baby steps. Egypt will get there but it's going to take maybe a generation.
You've said a lot of negative things about the Brotherhood, obviously you're massive fan...
In Egypt, you won't have a country without the Brotherhood. They have been here for 85 years and they will always have a presence. It might be underground... I'm not sure which is more worrying - above the ground or underground, but you are not a small country of a few hundred thousands who can control the Brotherhood. Egypt is a massive country with millions of people and the MB have a network of at least 2 – 3 million.
Tell us one interesting thing about yourself that we don't know...
I'm going to Alexandria, that's interesting!